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Allan Savory: Holistic Management in Grassland Management

Allan Savory: Holistic Management in Grassland Management

For forty years Allan Savory has been promoting the idea that rangelands suffer from too much rest—in fact, Savory claims that if ungrazed by livestock grasslands will become decadent and die. His faith in Holistic Management to stimulate grassland health was examined at a recent conference in Boulder.

The Savory Institute‘s International Conference, “Transforming the Landscape: Using Holistic Management to Create Global Impact,” featured a keynote from Savory, a former Rhodesian game warden and parliament member who founded the group.

If you are familiar with the debates between the timber industry and environmentalists over old growth forests, you may notice some similarities. Loggers for decades said we had to cut down forests to “improve” forest health by removing the “old decadent” trees to promote young “vigorous” forest growth. What both Savory’s prescription and those of the timber industry have in common is that they are essentially economic concerns disguised as biological fact.

Grasslands do not care whether they are maximizing forage production—that is a concern for ranching, but it’s not necessarily important to ecosystems. Just as there are many ecological benefits to old-growth forests, there are ecological advantages to old-growth grasses that seem to be completely overlooked by Holistic Management advocates.

Savory’s talk hasn’t changed significantly over the years. He’s still making the same arguments that desertification is caused by what he terms overrest, which is to say the absence of domestic livestock grazing. His assertion that vegetation not grazed by domestic animals ignores the fact that all grasslands are grazed by native herbivores from nematodes to grasshoppers to ground squirrels to elk to zebras or guanacos depending on the continent, but not always by cattle or sheep. There is really no such thing as an “ungrazed” or “over-rested” grassland.

Savory asserts that we must use cows to reverse desertification to save the world. I’m all for reversing desertification—but since livestock are among the major factors contributing to global desertification, I’m a bit skeptical that they are a solution to this problem.

Needless to say Savory’s prescriptions have found favor among many livestock advocates. It’s convenient to suggest that grasslands “need” livestock to be healthy—just as the timber industry suggests forests need logging to promote forest health—and conveniently make a profit at the same time.

The evidence for the assertion that grasslands “need” domestic livestock grazing is based upon economic values. Under certain conditions, some studies suggest that livestock grazing may increase above ground biomass as plants strive to repair the damage done by animal cropping. (However many of those studies are done in controlled labs where water and nutrients are unlimited–and competition with other plants is non-existent). Since grasses require leaves to photosynthesize, loss of these leafy materials causes a plant to reallocate energy from roots to the production of new leaves. The cumulative effect of this compensatory growth may result in greater biomass production–assuming conditions for regrowth exist–i.e. there is no drought or the plant has not entered the dormant season.

However, interpreting this as a “benefit” distorts what is occurring. Just as I can demonstrate that coyotes will respond to trapping, poisoning and shooting and compensate for these losses by producing more pups, it does not mean that coyotes “need” to be shot, poisoned and trapped.

Savory is a genius of promotion, and his latest claim and twist on his prescriptions is hitching his wagon to climate change. Not only do grasslands require grazing to be healthy, but in grazing rangelands, Savory asserts by happy coincidence, one can reduce global warming through sequestration of carbon in the soil.

It’s a message that is popular across the political spectrum. Right wing conservative ranchers love hearing that what they are doing is actually good for the planet, while urban liberals love the fact that they can eat “grass fed” beef and feel like they are saving the world.

There are many problems with many of Savory’s assertions and claims which I will take up momentarily; however, I want to acknowledge first that some of his observations and prescriptions are based on sound observations.

What Works in Holistic Management

A corner stone of Savory’s Holistic Management is an emphasis on timed compact grazing. In other words, concentrating livestock on a small area so that they have little choice but to consume everything, then moving the animals to a new pasture to give the area time to recover from the grazing impacts. These ideas are not new—though they may sound revolutionary to people who haven’t studied range science. But various permutations of timed grazing coupled with extended periods for recovery has been a pillar of range management for decades.

The other major component of his management scheme is planning and monitoring, which is essential to any good enterprise. Again, something that is not new or distinctive. Nevertheless, many ranchers have operated their ranches for decades using techniques and ideas that worked for their grandpappy. Adopting Holistic Management often does lead to improvement in both range condition, and their bottom line, in part because concentrated livestock more efficiently removes vegetation and extended rest allows the plants to recover from the negative effect of herbivory.

However, efficient consumption of forage is not the same as sound ecological condition. Like a new diet plan that inspires people to actually monitor what they eat, Holistic Management often works better than what they did previously, which usually included no planning or monitoring.

Savory’s genius is his ability to incorporate in his talks what may appear to be contrary positions, therefore appeals to a wide diverse audience. People tend to hear what they like, and ignore the rest. So when Savory says grasslands require cattle to be healthy and we need more cows not less—the ranchers cheer him on. But he also says that we must reduce fossil fuel consumption and burning, grow local food, get rid of industrial agriculture, and reduce global warming and thus environmentalists and liberals are captured by his rhetoric as well.

Indeed, I agree with him on these last statements myself. However, though I agree that we should reduce industrial agriculture, burning of fossil fuels and so forth, I don’t necessarily get to the conclusion that he offers: that the solution is to raise more cattle on more land.

Lack of Science

Savory’s speech was littered with jabs at science and the scientific method. He continuously suggested that universities, scientists, government agencies and others interfered with creativity and new approaches. Certainly we can all find examples of where world view and mind set interfere with thinking outside of the box. Savory was not the only speaker who castigated the scientific method. There is a reason for this distrust of science in particular—much of what Savory suggests as truths are disputed by scientific studies.

Replication is a hallmark of the scientific method. One must be able to get the same results as another person to be considered valid. In many instances, scientists looking at various components of Savory’s claims have not been able to duplicate his successes. He and his supporters have a pat answer to those scientists and studies—Holistic Management is about adaptation—continuously monitoring and tweaking management so that it’s impossible to duplicate results. Every ranch and situation is unique they assert, so the scientific method is not an appropriate way to judge Holistic Management’s effectiveness.

Because of his distrust of science (even though he uses a lot of scientific sounding words to describe why Holistic Management is superior to other methods), there were few scientists presenting at the conference. Rather the conference was loaded up with testimonials from practitioners—ranchers and others who swore they saw measurable differences in the land due to Holistic Management. Perhaps they have—I have no reason to doubt their experiences.

Nevertheless, the observation of something and the reason given for that observation can often be wrong. I can observe that the sun circles the Earth—and if I were an ancient Roman, I might conclude the Earth is the center of the Universe. How observations are interpreted is important to furthering our understanding of the world. Science helps us understand and interpret observations more clearly.

The few scientists that did appear as speakers at the conference were a bit more guarded in their statements. One scientist from the Nature Conservancy, for instance, chastised Savory and other speakers for calling grass “decadent”—no doubt uncomfortable with that negative description of something that is perfectly natural, old-growth grass plants.

Another scientist from the University of Wyoming threw a dart at the carbon sequestration saying that in arid grasslands productivity is so low that little new carbon sequestration can occur. She emphasized that there was a lot of carbon in grassland soils, and the best strategy was to protect that carbon storage, but she suggested that the only benefit to proper livestock management is that it would not deplete carbon storage.

The scarcity of scientific presentations was a hallmark of the conference. For instance the first panel discussed how livestock grazing improved carbon sequestration. Who were the “experts” on carbon cycles? Peter Byck, a film maker, Courtney White of the Quivira Coalition, a livestock advocacy group, and Jim Howell of Grasslands LLC, a ranch manager for an investment group. Carbon cycling is a very complex and specialized topic, yet these panelists acted as if they understood the chemical and other factors related to carbon sequestration. Perhaps the only reason no one challenged their presentations is that most of the audience likely knows even less about carbon cycles so has no way to evaluate the statements from the panelists.

It is true that a great deal of carbon is stored in rangeland soils given the percentage of the terrestrial ecosystems that are considered rangelands. However, it is also true that grazing arid grasslands as found in the American West does not significantly increase carbon storage and can reduce it by disturbing soils.

This was followed by a discussion of markets and how markets could be used to influence agricultural producers. The panelists  included John Fullerton of Capital Institute, Hunter Lovins of Natural Capital Solutions, and Woody Tash of Slow Money fame. Though I agreed with much that these innovative thinkers had to say about economics, none had any expertise in atmospheric chemistry, range science or even ranching, yet were enthusiastic in their endorsement of livestock production as a cornerstone for global carbon reduction.

What was a common theme of the conference is the total buy in to the assertion that livestock grazing can significantly reduce global carbon—but the scientific evidence for such carbon reduction is weak and conflicting.

Cattle is a Major Source of Methane

Furthermore, none of the speakers discussed the elephant in the room regards livestock and greenhouse gas emissions. Livestock are among the biggest sources of methane, a gas that is far more efficient at trapping heat than CO2. Even more damning are some recent studies that suggest that grass-fed beef produce more methane than cattle fed high-quality grain and other feedstock. This is largely because grass is relatively poor forage and must reside in the rumen longer for digestion—all the while rumen bacteria are producing methane. Nevertheless whether grass fed or grain fed, a full accounting of all the energy inputs would likely conclude that any sequestration attributed to livestock grazing is dwarfed by the greater contribution to GHG resulting from livestock production.

And so it went. A number of speakers asserted that with rising human population we have no choice but to produce more beef to feed a starving world, never once mentioning that reducing population is a far better goal than increasing beef production. It never ceases to astound me that ranchers in the United States seem to believe that starving Africans are going to pay for imported American beef to satisfy their hunger. If they can’t find the money to buy much cheaper food like rice and beans, it seems absurd to think they would benefit from more cattle production.

Testimonials

Most of the afternoon and the following day featured testimonials from various Holistic Management advocates from around the world. Indeed, on the agenda this was titled “Stories from around the World.” Stories are good ways to communicate ideas, and all these testimonials were heart-felt and I am certain in many instances, the positive changes described were real. I felt more like I was at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting where each person tells how they used to mistreat the land until they discovered a way out of this abuse by adopting Holistic Management.

Nevertheless, as with earlier presentations there was a paucity of hard evidence —the kind that scientific treatment could document. In many cases, what was presented as improvement in range condition was real—at least in the mind of the story teller. Confounding abiotic effects that could be responsible for the observed “improvements” resulting from increased precipitation or changes in timing of spring green up and so forth were not discussed.

Nor were there significant side by side controls without livestock grazing. In most situations, the Holistic Managers took badly managed ranches and turned them into better managed lands. Those telling the stories related how they had significantly increased their stocking rates (number of cattle), and “improved” the range condition by eliminating “decadent” grasses. And perhaps they did.

Ecological Impacts of Livestock

However, it is important to note that increasing stocking rates due to more efficient utilization of a ranch’s grasses is not the same as protecting ecological processes and/or biological diversity. For instance, the intensive grazing strategy advocated by Savory variously called “mob grazing,” “short duration grazing” or other names, so completely removes cover that it is no longer suitable for ground nesting birds or hiding cover for small rodents.

The near completion loss of flowers and other forbs can negatively impact pollinators like butterflies, bees, or species like hummingbirds that depend on finding certain plants blooming during a short and specific period of time.

The heavy “hoof action” of large numbers of livestock bunched together destroys soil crusts which are important to protecting soils from erosion and reducing weed invasion. Hoof action can also compact soils reducing water infiltration.

The unnatural concentration of manure from large herds of livestock is often a source of water pollution and nutrient enrichment that can negatively impact water quality. So called “decadent” grasses are important for capturing snow in the winter, and thus increasing water storage, not to mention they help to shade soils reducing soil evaporation.

And the efficient grazing of an entire ranch increases the possibility of livestock spreading exotic weeds everywhere.

Since livestock often spread disease to wildlife, introducing domestic animals into every nook and cranny of a ranch or grazing allotment increases the chances that wildlife will contract diseases.

And one can’t be putting the bulk of forage into an exotic animals like cattle without significantly reducing the food available to other native herbivores.

In the American West, where nearly all ranching operations rely on irrigated hay and pasture, the production of beef also contributed to dewatered streams. Irrigation water storage is also the chief reason for the construction of western dams which fragment aquatic ecosystems.

None of these negatives are unique to Holistic Management; indeed, they are common to most livestock operations to one degree or another.

Furthermore, there is a wide variety in vegetation, soils, precipitation, timing of precipitation and evolutionary history in what we term “rangelands” that Savory fails to acknowledge. For instance, sub-tropical grasslands in Africa that receive 20-30 inches of precipitation during the growing season and have a very long evolutionary history with large herds of herbivores are very different from say the Great Basin desert in the western US with less than 10 inches of winter precipitation during the dormant season and no recent evolutionary history of large herds of grazing mammals.

Bison, for instance, were absent from the Great Basin, and asserting as many Savory and his supporters suggest that vegetation in this region requires “herd’ effects conveniently ignores this ecological fact of life.

More Livestock Equals Greater Domestication of the Earth

In the end the conference did not offer more new insights into Holistic Management. Other than trying to tie HM practices to carbon sequestration, most of the arguments in favor of Holistic Management were a rehashing of the same material that Savory has offered up for decades. There is still a huge lack of hard data demonstrating any significant advantage to Holistic Management over other well managed livestock operations. And the new claim that livestock grazing is the salvation for climate change needs a lot more research with controlled situations and full accounting of trade-offs (do more cows negate any benefit that may result from carbon sequestration—if indeed livestock grazing actually promotes this?).

I think that most of the ranchers and others who are advocates of Holistic Management are among the innovative thinkers in the livestock field. But the most important question that is never broached is whether raising more livestock and domesticating even more of the Earth for human benefit is ultimately a wise strategy.

Photo by Wyoming Jackrabbit via flickr.com.

About George Wuerthner

George Wuerthner has published 36 books, including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy